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Child stars often crash and burn in Hollywood.

But not Kirsten Dunst. The 28-year-old actress, who started appearing in TV commercials when she was 3, is a survivor.

Her turn as Mary Jane in the Spider-Man movies made her an international star, and she is now gathering critical attention as an abused wife who may have been killed by her husband in All Good Things. Inspired by a true story, the film is playing in New York, opens in Los Angeles Friday and expands across the country at the end of the year. It also is available on Video On Demand.

This is Dunst’s first truly adult character performance, and she recognizes she has entered new territory.

“I think people will be surprised to see me in this role,” Dunst says in her West Hollywood hotel suite. “It was very demanding, but I knew I could enrich it.”

Audiences expect lighthearted fare from Dunst, who over the course of her career has played everything from a cheerleader (Bring It On) and a presidential dog walker (Dick) to a ditsy French queen (Marie Antoinette). In All Good Things, she starts out as a naive teenager who gets involved with a wealthy, possibly mentally ill New York businessman (Ryan Gosling). Ten years later, she vanishes.

Dunst took the emotionally challenging role after spending time at the Cirque Lodge in Utah, where she received treatment for depression.

“Probably most people my age stop for a second and question what they want to do,” she says. “I feel like I’m meant to work in this industry, so I will continue to do that. But I’m different now. Why I do what I do is much different, and how I approach it is much different.”

She had been her harshest critic. “That’s not always the best way to be. You’re supposed to enjoy your life.”

Dunst offers a rueful smile, then adds: “I’m no longer in a rush to jump into something. I’m competitive, but not as much as I used to be.”

All Good Things director Andrew Jarecki wanted Dunst for his film because she seems so easy to relate to. “It’s very hard to find someone who feels like a real person,” he says. “In the Spider-Man trilogy, she’s who we care about. She has an incredible ability to humanize and soften the man she’s playing against.

“Kirsten is glamorous, but in reality she’s sort of a tomboy. She’s never tried to make her teeth perfect. She’s realistic about things,” he says. “She was working at a very early age, so she comes in with a kind of seriousness. In our film, she’s the one we care most about.”

All Good Things is roughly based on the story of Robert Durst, an heir of a wealthy New York real estate family. Durst was suspected of, but never tried for, the murder of his wife, Kathie, who disappeared in 1982.

“The film is pretty close to what happened,” Dunst says. “I met the family and Kathie’s brother and listened to them talk about her. Kathie was someone who would light up a room. She was also a very intelligent woman. She got into Albert Einstein Medical School.” She was completing her fourth year when she vanished.

Speculating on why Kathie didn’t leave her husband, Dunst says: “They were married for quite some time, and back then you didn’t up and leave someone. She couldn’t see her way out of it. She didn’t have a big group of friends, and she didn’t want to go back home. She couldn’t afford to go to medical school” without his financial help.

As far as her own relationships, Dunst has grown. “I’ve never had anyone hit me, but I’ve definitely had the boyfriend you shouldn’t be with. I’m over that phase, and I’m proud of myself that I ended it quickly. Now I’m into good people who are trustworthy.”

She is dating Rilo Kiley drummer Jason Boesel.

After her stay in Utah, Dunst moved from Los Angeles, where she grew up, to New York. “I didn’t want to be available to always go to (business) meetings,” she says.

Since completing All Good Things, Dunst co-wrote and directed a six-minute mystery, Bastard, which screened at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival. She shot director Lars van Trier’s upcoming science-fiction disaster film Melancholia. She also completed Upside Down, which she describes as a “Romeo and Juliet love story with a happy ending.” Jim Sturgess co-stars.

Dunst is about to start work on a film version of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, co-starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart. “It’s a guy’s story,” she admits, “but the women had wild times, too. Their roles are smaller, but it’s an epic and a good thing to be part of.”

Down the line, Dunst may play Debbie Harry in a film about Blondie’s iconic vocalist. “Debbie wanted to put if off for awhile,” Dunst says, “but in a year or two, she might want to do it again. I’d love to play her.”

After all, she can relate. “Music is a passion of mine. If I weren’t acting, maybe I’d have sung in a band or played an instrument.”

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